Can Compassion Be Learned?

Posted on March 23rd, 2010

Categories: Aging Advocacy,Caring For Elderly,Hospitalization

Let me begin by saying that this is not a topic I have researched in depth.  Rather it is a question that has found its way into my thoughts and won’t depart since writing my thesis for a graduate degree in Gerontology.  The thesis topic was communication; specifically, communication between the physician and their elderly patients.  My research focused on the competencies of efficient and effective communication, and whether physicians are taught such skills in medical school.  With this thought came the question of what can be taught and, more precisely, what can be learned.

First, the words competency and compassion don’t seem to fit together.  From my perspective, “competency” belongs in the stiff corporate world of skills required to do a job while “compassion” belongs in the realm of human emotion.  In the professional world of medicine, can these two qualities be found in one person?  If not, can human emotion be taught?  Can human emotion be learned?

There are certain skills associated with communication that can be taught and learned.  Non-verbal affirmations such as head nodding, sitting and eye contact are behaviors which, with commitment and a desire to achieve, can be learned.  Then there are the innate characteristics that are inborn, a part of who we are from birth, that are central to the nature/nurture debate.  Thus the question – can human emotions such as compassion be learned?  Or must there be a predisposition for that characteristic lying dormant until such time as it is wakened through life experience or pure, simple desire?

Some behaviors, we want to believe, can be taught simply through modeling.  We strive to be good parents, children, citizens, employees, stewards in our personal lives.  But is the example enough to bring forth these qualities in others?  Or do we individually need that “gene.”  The simple answer – I don’t know.

Compassion is just one of several innate characteristics found in humans which provide the fertile soil necessary for positive growth.  Openness, warmth, honesty, a true understanding of another person’s circumstances are all traits which encourage trust.  With trust comes the opportunity for honest communication.  Being a skillful communicator requires behaviors which can be taught and learned — coupled with the quality of compassion.

My husband is the kind of guy who views his glass either half full or overflowing with goodness.  Thus, he believes in the goodness of people.  He adheres to the philosophy that people are born with a core of inner health waiting to be tapped into by life experience.  From his view, compassion is available to everyone as is honesty, empathy, love, trustworthiness and the other human characteristics that make us “good” people.

Nice.  It feels good to believe this.  I want to believe this!  I also want my doctor to demonstrate this quality when talking to me and my elderly clients.  But the question remains – can compassion be learned?  The answer isn’t clear, but I believe we should continue trying to model and teach the behavior that is a true gift to the others and especially the elderly.

Comments (3)


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shelley Webb and Deborah Dolan, Deborah Dolan. Deborah Dolan said: @ElderCareRN Thanks for the RT on human emotions! […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Can Compassion Be Learned? | Advocate On Aging -- — March 25, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

  2. I like your site!

    Comment by Wazoneniz — April 27, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  3. great post as usual!

    Comment by MarkSpizer — May 3, 2010 @ 5:54 am

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